Sometimes the literary world can suffer from a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. We all know this story made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, of the ridiculous Emperor tricked into wearing nothing and the underlings around him too afraid to point out that he is only in his underwear. In the mind of the Emperor he is adorned in the greatest attire, but in reality there isn’t much left for the imagination.
“In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods” is a new novel by Matt Bell and a Michigan Notable Book for 2014. It also has wonderful reviews from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other reputable book reviewers. And yet, I honestly can’t help but wonder if they all read the same book as me. Why aren’t they seeing the underwear too?
“In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods” is a book rich in symbolism and fantastical imagery. It is a world where a song can bring healing, animals talk, houses can be as endless as your memory, moons can be created and people can become squids. Overall, the imagery and the pace oddly reminded me a lot of the art films of Matthew Barney, like from his series “The CREMASTER Cycle.”
The story follows a married couple, their struggles to have a child, and then their mourning over the death of their only son, all in a world of natural magic. You can read the book in two ways, one in which the entire story is an emotional allegory; or you can read it as a new myth, stealing from Greek, Native American, and many other much better stories.
Sadly, Bell’s novel just isn’t very entertaining. One of the big reasons for this is that it’s hard to relate to the characters. They are really given no backstory and what we see as magical or bizarre never seems to affect them. While Neil Gaiman in his imaginative novels and stories can reach amazingly creative places, he still grounds it enough so he is taking us along. Matt Bell doesn’t do that. He expects you to swim or drown in his squid-filled waters by yourself.
Also, this is not a book for everyone, since it is a story where children will skin other children, a father will eat his deceased newborn, and a corpse that is buried never stays buried. Consider yourself warned.
Finally, this is a book with little to no dialogue, rooted more in long lyrical prose. Sometimes it can be quite beautiful, however, in other spots it can feel like something more belonging in a collection of poetry by a 13-year old. Maybe a story like this would have worked better as a short story or novella. Whatever the case, by the time I reached page 312, I was exhausted.
I don’t like giving bad book reviews. Yet, I can’t help but feel like the boy in Andersen’s tale who’s pointing and catcalling at the Emperor. It could be argued that the boy in that story was doing something brave. Me, I’m not brave, just a disappointed reader.
Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels “A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.